Earthquake aid helps Haiti fix horrific prisons

AP News
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Posted: Jul 21, 2011 6:04 PM
Earthquake aid helps Haiti fix horrific prisons

Eighteen months after a devastating earthquake, life is finally getting a little better for at least one group of Haitians: prisoners.

While tens of thousands of quake survivors still live in makeshift, flood-prone shelters amid stalled efforts to clear rubble and rebuild homes, some of the impoverished country's jails are receiving major makeovers.

The United States, Britain, Canada, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross have launched projects aimed at improving conditions in prisons that have been described as some of the worst in the world.

Some of the international action was already in progress prior to the January 2010 earthquake, from which the rest of the country has yet to recover. But the deplorable conditions and Haiti's weak justice system were underscored by the quake, during which National Penitentiary prisoners set fire to their cell blocks and more than 4,200 men escaped.

Police and U.N. peacekeepers have recaptured more than 930 prisoners. Some of those still at large include alleged gang members and serious criminals.

About 70 percent of the inmates had never even been charged with a crime, however, according to the U.S. State Department's 2010 human rights report. Because of Haiti's corrupt and clogged judicial system, they had been held in indefinite pretrial detentions, with most prisoners languishing longer than they would have had they been sentenced for a crime.

Defendants awaiting court hearings and a verdict are confined to rat-infested, stifling-hot cells where disease is rampant. Cholera alone killed dozens of men in the National Penitentiary over the past year, said Dr. John May, a south Florida doctor who has delivered medical supplies to the penitentiary for a decade.

Overcrowding is so bad that the inmates sleep in dirty hammocks suspended from the ceiling, or resort to sleeping on the floor in shifts.

"The stronger inmates sleep all night. The weaker ones don't," said Riccardo Conti, chief of delegation for the ICRC, which monitors prison conditions.

Prisons have been bad in Haiti for as long as anyone can recall. Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, the father and son dictators who ruled Haiti for 29 years until 1986, were notorious for using the facilities' horrific conditions to torment political opponents. Subsequent governments either had no interest in improving conditions or lacked the resources.

Many of those in lockup are accused of minor offenses that in a functioning system would get them barely any jail time at all, said Mario Leclerc, a Canadian police and prison adviser for the U.N. Development Program. "Everybody can make a mistake in their life. You know, if you are in jail for five years because you stole a goat because you were hungry or had to feed your family, I don't think you have to stay in jail."

In 2008, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Haiti to bring its "inhuman" prisons in line with minimum international standards within two years. The January earthquake tabled those efforts.

International aid groups revived the endeavor about six months after the quake, as they began shifting their priorities from relief to rebuilding Haiti. While home rebuilding stalled due to land disputes, a delayed election and the absence of a functioning government, the groups have had success getting jail renovation projects going.

The results are noticeable in Haiti's National Penitentiary, whose largest wing is the Titanic block, a name derived from its hulking cement tower. The ICRC has invested $260,000 in the block to repaint filthy walls, to provide sleeping platforms for prisoners who used to fight for space on the floor and to install functioning toilets in place of overflowing buckets. It is now trying to bring clean water to inmates in other cell blocks.

"Those are significant advances," Dr. May said.

At the northeastern edge of the capital, the Canadian government and the International Organization for Migration have nearly finished building a new, fortress-like facility that will house 750 inmates.

The new prison's 96 cells, meant for eight people each, have twice the space of those in the National Penitentiary, which are designed for 12 but sometimes have held 80.

The U.S. has promised more than $30 million to train corrections officers. The Americans also plan to build a new women's prison and to renovate the current women's lockup and a jail in the seaside district of Carrefour.

The U.N. Development Program has helped train prison inspectors and set up a database to track important prisoner information. Britain has rehabilitated a detention center for minors and a jailhouse.

Human rights organizations insist much more needs to be done.

Brian Concannon, an attorney and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which works on prison reform, said new prisons will reduce crowding, but the real solution is to tackle deficiencies in the justice system that cause overcrowding in the first place.

He said that Haiti's high pretrial detention rate could drop if judges and prosecutors received decent wages, making them less susceptible to bribes.

Haiti's new president, Michel Martelly, has said he wants to rebuild the justice system, along with the environment, employment and education systems. But he's made little headway since he was sworn in two months ago. Lawmakers haven't even approved his choice for prime minister.

Still, May sees progress. "There's a long way to go," he said, "but there's a lot to be hopeful about."